Monday, January 13, 2014

we interrupt this broadcast ... an open letter to jian g at q

Every time I hear of some opposition to the oilsands, whether it be Americans against Keystone-XL or British Columbians against the Northern Gateway, I have mixed feelings. It's the same with Neil Young's campaign on behalf of Athabasca-Chipewayan First Nations: on the one hand, I believe the oilsands projects at large should be shut down for the immeasurable damage I fear they'll do; on the other, I know the consequences will be dire for me and millions of others in Alberta if the opposition is successful.

I'm a Maritimer and I came to Alberta in 2011. I live in Bonnyville, which is almost halfway between Fort Mac and Edmonton. I don't really want to be here - the winters are much too long and the cold can be devastating - but it would be foolish bordering on irresponsible to turn away from the opportunities that are available. The widespread success of the industry - we call it "the patch" - has made for an economy unlike any other in Canada.

"The patch" means that guys younger than 25 routinely earn over a hundred grand a year. "The patch" means the grocery stores and coffee shops and hotels go through staff like water through a sieve. "The patch" means that despite a minimum wage rate of $9.95, there's no need to take anything less than $12 an hour and even jobs that pay $20 an hour aren't anything to boast about. In fact, I once heard a guy swear he'd never work for less than $35 and hour again, now that he had a family. He was making $50 at the time.

For me, "the patch" has meant walking into a job as a legal assistant without a minute of experience. At home, I would need a diploma and three years experience to get work. I know, because I've been checking online. If I went home now I'd be going back to $10 an hour in a call centre.

Listening to Neil Young today on Q, so passionate and intense, so sure of his position, I felt guilty. I know I wouldn't be earning a living in Alberta if the industry here were more obviously exploitative - like whaling, maybe. Or slavery. So what makes this industry more palatable? Is it because I use the products "the patch" produces? Is it because the immeasurable damage isn't immediate, despite what Neil Young says?

I wonder if I would change my mind about being here if I were to see the oilsands up close and personal. Because even though I see evidence of their existence all around me the sands aren't really real, you know? They're an abstraction, even though I'm significantly closer to them than most Canadians.

For now, I stay. I have the job of my dreams, I'm clearing debt, and planning for a nice retirement. I don't live paycheque to paycheque anymore. I don't struggle in front of the shelves at the grocery store anymore, wondering if I can afford the lean ground beef. If I run low on gas, I can fill up my tank; I don't have to dig through the piggy bank or borrow 20 bucks from my Dad until payday.

My new lifestyle has tremendous value to me. Should it be at the expense of the natural environment or someone's culture? No, it shouldn't. I know it shouldn't. But how can I walk away from it? And how could someone else suggest I walk away from it? What should I do instead?

I don't think the answers come easily, if at all. And that's why I'll continue to feel confused and guilty, even as I do nothing differently.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

three times, still no charm

The owners of that first mobile home were eager to be rid of it.

They'd installed a rough but large sign on the fence that marked the line between the end of their property and the busy highway. They'd also advertised, as I mentioned, on Infomall.

The mobile sat, abandoned and ugly, next to a charming and brand-spanking-new home. Several stories high and even more respectable in contrast, it was probably the raison-d'ĂȘtre for the trailer in the first place: many families in this area have parked a trailer on their acreage while they built the house of their dreams. Now that this family had moved in, they seemingly wanted to negate the past. They wanted the mobile home gone by winter.

We visited it a second time before the South African Hottie felt right about making his bid. After factoring in the probable cost - $3,000 - of moving the trailer five-or-so kilometres to its new base, he was determined to get the trailer for $2,000 or less. In fact, based on how flexible the home-owner sounded when we called for permission to have that second viewing, we suspected we could get the trailer for nothing at all.

When we got back to the house we shared with the fighting newlyweds, the SAH made the call. He began the negotiations by asking again how much the owner wanted. But this time, instead of talking about how keen she was to have it gone, she told the SAH she had spoken to someone else who promised to come by with $7,000. He said goodbye and hung up, knowing she wanted a higher price now, not a lower one.

Even the SAH agreed the trailer wasn't worth $7,000 (and I was very grateful for that), and so we weren't surprised to note that the trailer still sat in their unfinished yard in the days, weeks, and even months that followed. In fact, at the end of the summer we visited it a third time, despite having moved into the home we have now, because the South African Hottie has always intended to join two trailers into one huge living area. Maybe, he thought, the owners would be more willing to come down in price now that fall approached and their prospects looked grimmer. But no, the owner still seemed to want that $7,000. Either she got it or she surrendered, because the trailer was gone a few weeks after that last visit.

For us, however, before we found the trailer we ultimately brought home, we considered the firetrap and the gutless wonder.

Sunday, October 21, 2012

bleak house

The 1970s was a great decade for mobile homes.

How do I know? I know because there were so many of them advertised for sale this summer on Infomall, this region's preferred alternative to kijiji.

We looked at four before settling on the one we're living in now.

The first, which we visited three times, discouraged and frightened me. The roof clearly leaked, there was rot beneath some of the windows where water had made an entrance, and it was filthy. That the South African Hottie saw potential in it just worried me more. I couldn't believe he could imagine living there, or that he'd expect me to accept such conditions.

The kitchen was beyond small. There was a short counter, a stove, a fridge, and a few cupboards, but there could never be more than two people in the room at one time.

The front room wasn't so bad. The windows allowed the bright sunshine to come in, nearly tricking me into wanting to spend time there. The rear of the trailer, where the bedrooms were, had the opposite effect, however. Each of the two rooms were small, horribly carpeted, and dingy.

I wanted so much better than that. It probably didn't help that at the time we were living in a house needing only very slight changes.

That place had shiny hardwood floors throughout. It had two bathrooms, one with a giant whirlpool bath (true, the jets didn't work, but its depth made up for the loss), the other with a shower so small I usually bumped an elbow or a knee while washing, but it had a massive cupboard that I adored. Even better, this bathroom was an en suite, making nighttime pee breaks a breeze.

The kitchen had more space than I could fill. I've never met another human being who could say that.

The living room was perfectly sized for our bulky, three-piece furniture set and a 50-inch LED TV. The two spare bedrooms were in use as a computer room and an exercise room, respectively.

The house was clean, well-lit, had a decent deck and backyard.... I could have stayed, if it weren't for the noise from everywhere around us, including downstairs, where our landlord and his new bride lived and held daily yelling sessions.

And so we looked at dirty, run-down, mobile fixer-uppers.

The first was for sale for $7,000 or 'best offer'. After seeing it, the SAH thought we could get it for $2,000.

Yep. Two thousand dollars.

If that doesn't tell you what it looked like, nothing can. After all, I didn't take pictures of it, despite the repeated visits. Taking photos would have implied I could imagine living there.

I was discouraged, but I didn't have to be. The owners saved me from this particular fate by sabotaging their own sale.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

finding some homeland

So what finally happened? Well, not a mortgage, that's for sure.

We went to a couple of banks. The first - mine - was receptive to financing about 50% of the purchase of "The Boneyard" but said we would have to provide a library full of documents.

The Credit Union - which neither of us bank at - was more promising, saying it would finance up to 65% of the land purchase, but the fact we were each paying $875/month in rent was a problem. We'd have to wait a weekend to find out whether that was going to be an obstacle. Never mind that by buying the land $875/month would be available for loan payments - the rent had to be included on the application.

Ultimately, the Credit Union said no and pointed to our extreme living expenses as the reason.

So the South African Hottie took a significant portion of his savings and used it to buy the land directly. On the 18th of this month, the transfer was complete. He/we are now proud owners of a 10-acre field.


We're moving out of our rental in a week. My next entry will explain just what it is we're moving into.

It ain't pretty.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

the land of trees and electricity

This is one of several updates to get the blog up to speed. I'll do it in small portions to keep the appetite whet.

First, another property we looked at:

The owner is proudest of the hundreds of trees he's planted

Not quite five acres, if I recall. At least it has power.
This one is on a busy highway, which pretty much ruled it out immediately. The biggest obstacle, though, was the cost: it was priced significantly higher than the 10 acres we preferred, at less than half the size. Electricity is valuable, no doubt about it - we know it would cost about $15,000 to get a power pole installed - but we'd rather save the money and do it ourselves.

Which is why we decided to put in another offer on the 10 acres with the bleached bones and dead furball. The South African Hottie sent an email to the real estate agent.

And we waited and waited and waited for a reply.

Just like the last time.

My instincts told me the problem was the agent. He's got a hotshot reputation and people do nothing but complain about him. I sensed we just weren't big enough clients. So one afternoon, just as the South African Hottie was returning me to work after a mortgage-seeking appointment (more on that later), I noticed that a truck parked out front belonged to another agent. I suggested we approach him.

Within days the thing was settled. Completely settled. The land is ours - or will be on the 8th of this month.

Next: The search for a mobile home.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

the pricey place

We have received an answer regarding our offer on the land we like.

Before I get to that, let me tell you about a property we took another look at while we were waiting.

It's way out of town. Thirty-two kilometers, to be exact. We weren't even sure we wanted to drive that far to and from work, but we'd seen it once and agreed it was worth a second thought.

The owners have said it's been appraised at $189,000. I'll have more to say on that in a moment.
It's 10 acres, the mobile home is nearly 40 years old, there's no power, the well produces rusty water that only lasts 30 minutes at a time, and it's got the most fertile soil I've ever seen.

The entrance way

Front view of the mobile

A little garden patch just beside the mobile; full of johnny-jumpups

The paddock; horses used to chill here

A hill behind the mobile; still part of the 10 acres

More of that hill

Still more of that hill

Even more of that hill

Other than deer tracks, this is the only evidence of critters

Along the fence line, from the hill to the back of the property

The owners have a lot of junk sitting on the property even though they haven't lived there since the fall

The other side of the mobile, facing towards the entry

Back view of the mobile
So it's got a lot of charm, at least to us. But we didn't think it had more than $125,000 worth of charm. The mobile home needs work, there's no electricity, the well is crap.... But knowing about the $189,000 appraisal had us reluctant to make an offer. Then we realized we had nothing to lose.

We sent an apologetic email offering $125,000. We didn't say it, but were willing to go as high as $140,000 if it seemed right.
The reply was a little abrupt. A real estate agent had valued the property at $160,000, she wrote in her email message, so our bid was much, much too low.

This new figure - nearly $30,000 lower than the one posted in the online ad that led us to the property - made me feel played. And since neither of us enjoys being manipulated, we haven't bothered to make any other offers.

Which brings me to the answer we got on our flatland.

Nope: the property owners won't finance it.

Which means we have to do the mortgage thing. It's not our preferred way of going forward but it isn't a significant obstacle. No, the biggest problem we have now is getting the real estate agent to reply to our emails or to stop taking full days away from the office.

The South African Hottie is losing his patience. That's never good.